Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mr. Poe Takes the Stage (Part Two)

"The Frogpondians may as well spare us their abuse. If we cared a fig for their wrath we should not first have insulted them to their teeth, and then subjected to their tender mercies a volume of our Poems:--that, we think, is sufficiently clear. The fact is, we despise them and defy them (the transcendental vagabonds!) and they may all go to the devil together."
-Edgar Allan Poe, writing in the "Broadway Journal," November 22, 1845
Edgar Allan Poe Al AaraafPoe was clearly having far too much fun with his antagonists. When reading his editorial, it is difficult to imagine anything better suited to add fat to the fire, and it is even more difficult to imagine that this was not precisely his intention. Inevitably, this only invited further attacks upon him from Miss Walter and her editorial allies, who seemed to never tire of informing their readers that Poe was a pathetic, indigent madman who had, it was suggested, been visibly drunk during his Lyceum recital. (The allegation that Poe took the stage intoxicated is still widely repeated today, despite the fact that it is utterly fictitious. Despite what such unfortunate productions as Jeffrey Combs’ recent one-man show about Poe would have us believe, he never made any sort of stage appearance when he was under the influence.) Poe himself snorted at such insinuations, wondering why “these miserable hypocrites” couldn't “say ‘drunk’ at once and be done with it?”

The literary battle over his Lyceum appearance continued for an astonishing length of time, at least partly due to the fact that, whenever it showed any signs of dying a natural death, Poe would use the pages of the “Broadway Journal” to eagerly bring it back to full strength. Other newspapers and magazines were drawn into the fray, either for or against him, and Poe responded to both praise and abuse with equal gusto. (When the "Harbinger," the official journal of the transcendental Brook Farm commune, published a column questioning Poe's mental condition, he responded, "Insanity is a word that the Brook Farm Phalanx should never be brought to mention under any circumstances whatsoever." He added condescendingly that the "Harbinger" was "the most reputable organ of the Crazyites," run by people whose objects were honorable, "all that anybody can understand of them." He also noted with malicious delight that the circulation of the "Broadway Journal" had doubled since his Lyceum appearance.)

He probably would have kept the debate going in perpetuity—the opportunity it gave him to publicly mock the Transcendentalists was clearly a source of unflagging joy to him—if it had not been for the untimely demise of the “Broadway Journal” in January of 1846. Deprived of his public forum, Poe was forced to retreat from the field, a complication which allowed his enemies to attack him with impunity.

When the "Journal" folded, the Transcendentalists immediately proclaimed victory over Poe. Cornelia Walter even published a clumsy little poem in which she hinted that a conspiracy had deliberately brought down the magazine:
"To trust in friends is but so so,
Especially when cash is low;
The Broadway Journal's proved 'no go'--
Friends would not pay the pen of Poe."
Clearly, Poe and the Transcendentalists were adversaries to the death. But why? Initially, the Transcendentalists had wanted to bring Poe into the fold; to make him one of their own. Poe, however, felt contempt for them from the beginning.

Many of the early Transcendentalists were evolving Unitarians who desperately wanted to be spiritual, but could not commit themselves to the existence of God. They chose to instead worship environmentalism, and European philosophers, and communitarianism, and "good works," and anti-industrialization.

And Poe considered them frauds, phonies, and misguided lost souls. He said as much often enough, and he said it to their faces when he mischievously recited "Al Aaraaf." As a truly spiritual man, Poe disdained the pretensions of the Transcendentalists, whose religion was the movement itself. So many of Poe's poems and stories are about the soul's quest for Heaven, for God, for escape from earthly entombment. Yet, some souls don't make the grade. In "Ulalume," the soul briefly soars, but then falls back to the hell of earth. In "Al Aaraaf," the souls choose to exist in a grey area where they will eventually perish because they retained earthly thoughts and desires, and never achieved true spirituality. "I know how to get to Heaven," he seemed to be saying, "and you don't."

This was the message he intended to convey to his Boston audience.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the Boston incident is that, contrary to what one would assume, it had no discernible impact on Poe’s career as a lecturer. Even though the Lyceum’s Board of Trustees would later censure him, (not so much for his appearance there itself, but for the insulting things he published about it afterwards,) he continued to receive invitations to lecture or recite at various venues. Although he did not make very many more public appearances in the four years before his death, this appears to have been by choice. His lectures were generally very well reviewed, and frequently well-attended. If he had wished to, Poe, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, probably could have made a good living by concentrating on lecture tours. His reasons for not doing so are unknown, but he probably simply had other priorities. In any case, the controversy which surrounded his Lyceum appearance was never repeated in any of his other stage performances.

There is another thing that needs to be said about his Boston Lyceum failure— it was hardly universally regarded as having been a failure. As was noted earlier, some of the more objective papers found his recital mystically compelling. The “Boston Daily Courier” called “Al Aaraaf” “an elegant and classic production,” that was, they implied, simply too good for his audience. In 1879, the Transcendentalist writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had been in the audience on that memorable night in Boston, recorded the remarkable impact of Poe’s performance. Higginson recalled that the spectators found the poem “rather perplexing,” and it failed to make a great impression upon them until Poe began to read the second half of the poem. His tone began “softening to a finer melody." When he came to the verse that began:
Ligeia! Ligeia!
My beautiful one!
Whose harshest idea
Will to melody run,
O! is it thy will
On the breezes to toss?
Or, capriciously still,
Like the lone Albatross,
Incumbent on night
(As she on the air)
To keep watch with delight
On the harmony there?
Higginson said Poe’s voice “seemed attenuated to the finest golden thread; the audience became hushed, and, as it were, breathless; there seemed no life in the hall but his.” He added that “every syllable was accentuated with such delicacy, and sustained with such sweetness as I never heard equaled by other lips...I remember nothing more, except in walking back to Cambridge my comrades and I felt we had been under the spell of some wizard.” Surely, any event that could elicit such a reaction could hardly be called disastrous.Robinson Al AaraafWhen Cornelia Walter began trumpeting his performance as a pitiful debacle, Poe clearly relished the attention, no matter how negative it may have been. He was an instinctive showman, who would have been in full agreement with the old Hollywood adage of “say anything you like about me, as long as you spell my name right.” He saw Walter’s campaigns against him as chances to not only publicize the “Broadway Journal,” and his recent book, “The Raven and Other Poems,” but to highlight what he saw as the mendacity and imbecility of his enemies. He certainly accomplished both those goals. Poe’s so-called “madness” had a cool-headed method to it much more often than is popularly assumed.